Fighting for Our Lives: The history of a community response to AIDS
NewSouth BooksPhoto by Anna Shvets from Pexels
Nick Cook’s Fighting for Our Lives feels both bigger and smaller than its project as a living history of the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON). Cook gives a tight focus to the organic and reactive community response to the emergence and mutation of HIV/AIDS. The book is deliberately human and ultimately an act of reclamation, collating oral and scattered institutional histories into a vital proof-of-life document and a permanent record of voices raised and all but erased.
The text spans the twenty-odd years from the first reporting of what was then known as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) and is avowedly most concerned with the gay male experience. Cook is at pains to locate this concern within the context of gay men being both pathologised and the most at-risk cohort locally. It’s also a tension that needs continual renegotiation in structuring and evolving an organisation dependent on government funding and engagement. Cook also positions himself very quickly as an insider and this subjectivity feels key to a narrative detailing identity politics in a pure sense, pitting the nascent out gay male against both contagion anxiety and state pushback in an atmosphere of othering and fear.
Gay rights activism is the core expertise and connective tissue of the key players in Cook’s text. A lot of space is given over to personal drama and territorial pissing as these characters pivot to a common purpose in facing down a threat that doesn’t discriminate or bend in the same way that broader society and political structures do. ACON formed on the back of one galvanising event: a protest to a 1982 Red Cross ban on “promiscuous” gay men donating blood. A core tenet of the mission statement of ACON continues to be a concern with gay male bodies and their literal erasure.
The far from exhaustive list of acronyms prefacing the foreword reads like a roadmap into previously inaccessible health and bureaucratic spaces. It mirrors a learning curve vital to a remit of access to care and resources and, eventually, peer-to-peer education and behaviour change advocacy far removed from the censorious blood bank approach.
The long path to treatments, and ACON’s own entrenched status, is similarly framed through opposition, and enlivened by gossipy “He said, he said” recollections that hang off the totems of the period, from the Grim Reaper ad campaign to ACT-UP storming Parliament House, candlelight vigils, the AIDS quilt, seemingly endless protests, demands for funding, magic pill trials and disappointments, and coalition building. There’s also a lot of gallows humour and shout-outs to the gay artists who created much of ACON’s iconic campaign imagery. But Cook also movingly and often somewhat jarringly litters his pages with deaths. The demise of the people involved reads almost like page breaks that emphasise the devastating losses of these years.
ACON circa 2000 stands on their shoulders but surveys vastly altered terrain, morphing into an all service health and support provider that still centres HIV/AIDS. Its legacy is as a pro-gay and pro-sex institution forged when queer lives were most at risk and Fighting for Our Lives is a timely primer in how communities coalesce, galvanise and collapse into solidarity and, in the words of another of the epidemic’s key documents, how to survive a plague.